A soldier’s Christmas story

By Steve Banko

For me, Christmas will always be found in the music.

From those long ago days of grammar school innocence when the nuns embarked on the crusade to drill the words of every carol in Christendom into my brain, until today – with innocence a faded memory but the joy of Christmas a constant prayer, I found great delight and consolation in the music of Christmas. Some of my most enduring memories involve those nuns, the songs they taught me, and the way we sang them.

The holiday seemed so much simpler back at Holy Family School when the annual Christmas pageant was followed by Skippy Cups, Christmas cookies, and an hour or so of caroling. It hardly mattered that puberty rendered the male voices in our choir much more akin to a pond of bull frogs than the Vienna Boys Choir. The real music wasn’t in our voices anyway. It was in the words – in the hope and the promise, and the triumph of Christmas.

Less than a decade later and a half-world away from the well-scrubbed faces of grade school and light years away from the simple joy of ice cream and Mothers’ Club cookies, I spent a different kind of Christmas under the spell of the carols.

I was a just arrived patient in the transient ward in Yokota, Japan. I’d taken two bullets to my right knee and a pound or so of shrapnel all over my body. I was on the verge of losing my leg and my mind with the horror of a five-hour battle playing over and over again in my mind. Through three weeks and four operations, the doctors struggled to save my leg from a savage infection. They turned the fight over to a new team of docs in Japan.

I arrived in Japan late on Christmas Eve, 1968. The friendly faces of nurses I’d come to know were replaced with new faces in a new hospital. My body hurt but my mind was worse off. I was frightened by what this pain might mean for my future. I was angry for what my country made me do and endure in its name. But more than anything, I was lonely. Christmas was always something to be shared and now, I was alone in the bleakest sense of the word. My only consolation came from the sound system piping music through our ward.

“The First Noel” … “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” … “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” … by the time the carols recycled for another rotation, I could almost believe there was joy in the world. No matter how close I came to believing, though, the pain in my knee and the sadness in mind kept me mired in despair.

I was interrupted in my self-pity by a low moan from the bed next to me. So self-absorbed had I been that I needed to be reminded that others were enduring the same, if not worse, plight as I.

The man in the next bed was covered in plaster from the tops of his knees to his lower jaw. Gauze covered his face and head and only cutouts for his eyes, nose, and mouth broke the field of white. His arms were plastered and held away from his body with metal rods. His hands were the only skin not covered.

The sounds of hope and love and triumph were frequently punctuated by the sounds of pain, the result of man’s inhumanity. Throughout, however, the man in the cast could issue only low moans. I couldn’t conceive of what unspeakable horror had left him like this; what terrible pain wracked his body; what hopes and dreams had been crushed by the brutality that rendered him so helpless.

Suddenly, my pain didn’t seem nearly as important and my loneliness became more tolerable. When the nurse came around with our pain meds and the lights were dimmed, the strains of “Silent Night” were my last recollections of that strange Christmas Eve. Before I nodded off, I asked the nurse to push my bed closer to the man in the cast. She looked puzzled but complied. I reached our and touched my comrade’s hand. Finally, it did seem as though “all was calm, all was bright.”

No words were spoken. None were needed. I felt a gentle tightening on my hand and for the first time that awful December, I believed that I might survive and for the first time in weeks, I wanted to.

For me, Christmas will always be in the music.